September 19, 2006

Laurel Canyon

Joni Mitchell plays a song in Cass Elliot's Laurel Canyon backyard while David Crosby and Eric Clapton listen. (Caption from NPR, photograph by Henry Diltz)

20th century pop culture history is replete with famous locales (buildings, streets, etc.) that act as catalysts, inspiring the artists, writers and musicians drawn to them. For every Algonquin Hotel, there's a Brill Building, or Carnaby Street, CBGB's, Haight-Ashbury, or Hitsville U.S.A. The close proximity to other like minded, insanely talented, and ambitious individuals such places provide must certainly be one reason for the amount of quality art to come out of each. But I like to believe the actual locations also have an integral hand in stoking the fires of the creative process. One such fabled, location-as-muse, is the Los Angeles neighborhood Laurel Canyon.

Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Laurel Canyon was home to entire bands, and the hangout of choice for every rock 'n' roll legend who passed through Los Angeles, from roughly 1964 to 1981. At one time or another, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles, and Jim Morrison (just to name a few) made the canyon neighborhood their home.

I just finished reading the excellent book Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker (a current resident, by the way). It's a fast and fascinating (if you're into that kind of thing) read. NPR's morning edition did a feature on it a couple of weeks ago. A few of my favorite anecdotes (of many):

  • A pompous, arrogant young David Crosby (just after The Byrds had two number 1 hits with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!") roaring down Laurel Canyon Blvd. on a Triumph given to him by Peter Fonda, while wearing a cape. It's not mentioned, but I'd bet he wasn't wearing a helmet.

  • The night Barry McGuire, riding high on his hit "Eve of Destruction," set up a stack of monstrous speakers at the Mamas and the Papas' house on Lookout Mountain, grabbed a microphone, and proceeded to bellow: "This is God speaking. I have a message for you."

  • The four month, nonstop jam session held at Frank Zappa's house (the former Tom Mix cabin, a few doors down from Joni Mitchell's house [of "Our House" fame]).

    Good times.

    Just a few of the songs written in Laurel Canyon:

    "California Dreamin'"
    "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"
    "It's Too Late"
    "Love Street"
    "My Opening Farewell"
    "Our House"
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